“India is beyond statement, for anything you say, the opposite is also true. It's rich and poor, spiritual and material, cruel and kind, angry but peaceful, ugly and beautiful, and smart but stupid. It's all the extremes.”
Sarah Macdonald, Australian journalist and author of Holy Cow! An Indian Adventure.
The last week of August witnessed Indian youth power soaring to dizzy heights. It began with the 18-year-old R. Praggnananda becoming the youngest in history to storm into the World Cup Chess final. Soon followed the first-ever sprint into the 4x400 men’s final of the World Athletics at Budapest by an Indian quartet, which included three Malayalis. Next was the Malayali badminton maestro H S Prannoy, grabbing the bronze at the World Badminton in Copenhagen after he beat the two-time defending champion and world number one Dane, Viktor Axelsen in the semi-final on the latter’s home turf. The week’s crowning glory was the 25-year-old Olympic Gold medalist Neeraj Chopra becoming India’s first gold winner in World Athletics, hurling his javelin to a distance of 88.71 metres.
But even as India’s sporting youth was ensuring a place in the sun in other countries, back home, a small Rajasthan town was turning into a mass grave of children. On August 28, Kota, India’s “entrance coaching capital” on the banks of the Chambal River, witnessed the town’s 23rd student suicide since January. Two boys -Avishkar Kasle (18) and Adarsh Raja (16), from Maharashtra and Bihar, respectively, committed suicide within four hours. Around 3:15 p.m., Kasle jumped off his coaching institute's sixth floor after finishing the weekly test. At about 7 p.m., Adarsh hanged himself in his rented flat. Though no suicide notes were recovered, both are suspected to have committed the extreme step, fearing they would fail in the test.
A shocked state government immediately ordered stopping all unit tests in Kota’s coaching centres for the next two months. Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot constituted an expert committee to study the issue comprehensively and recommend preventive measures within a fortnight. The committee has already recommended coaching centres to immediately initiate steps to de-stress students, like organise extracurricular and entertainment activities, uploading motivational videos, and also reduce syllabus to lessen pressure.
Kerala should also take note of this Kota catastrophe, given our dominant middle-class families’ pathological obsession to make their children engineers and doctors at any cost. Though Thirssur has faded, Pala or Kanjirappally can potentially turn a Kota tomorrow.
Most of the nearly 120 students who killed themselves in Kota during the last eight years belong to middle or even lower-middle-class families from rural Bihar or Uttar Pradesh. They are driven to the precipice by the coaching schools’ demanding daily routine, back-breaking internal exams, constant fear of failure, fierce competition, anxiety over their parents’ lifetime savings being lost if they fail, pressures from parents, teachers, and peers, absence of support mechanisms and mental outlets, are seen as the major triggers for the dismal story. Most children aged 16-18 live away from their families for the first time and break down before the pressures in an unknown world of intense competition and rivalry.
So much so that after coaching, counseling has become the most lucrative business in Kota. Counseling centres jostle with coaching centres in Kota’s narrow lanes. Institutes, hostels, and paying guest facilities advertise that their premises have been secured with “safety nets” (literally) not to let children jump from terraces or special devices fitted in ceiling fans to prevent attempts to hang from them. A ceiling fan is Kota’s most dreaded metaphor for death! Most kids end up hanging from ceiling fans, jumping from top floors, or consuming rat poison. Heart-wrenching suicide notes saying “My dear Papa and Mom, sorry for what I’m doing. Thank you for everything” or “Happy birthday, Papa” are pasted on the walls of the hostel rooms. Special student cells have been formed in police stations. Police officials blame the institutes for the unbearable coaching schedules.
Kota produces the highest number of students cracking the JEE and NEET examinations. They claim that 50 of the 100 top All India Ranks in the 2023 JEE exams were from Kota. But as the number of winners has risen, so has the suicides. They grew from 18 in 2015 to an all-time high of 23 this year, with four more months remaining.
Only the two pandemic years saw a fall in suicides in Kota because there were fewer admissions, and students had family support, having been bound to homes. Kota’s killing fields’ notoriety crossed borders with Netflix’s 2019 documentary, The Kota Factory. A New York Times article titled “Cram City” said, “Kota is a place of strivers, where the fear of being left behind is palpable. Two of the city’s main neigbourhoods -Vigyan Nagar and Landmark city-feel like open-air museums of Indian anxiety. Kota is a reflection of the culture of inequality that persists across Indian society”.
Kota now has about 150 institutes, attracting around 1.5 lakh students yearly with an estimated revenue of more than Rs 5000 crores annually. A food and accommodation industry sector piggy-backs the boom, with as many as 3,500 hostels and 45000 paying guests in the tiny town. 1 BHK flats have mushroomed for better-off parents or grandparents to stay with their kids, give them emotional support, or prepare home food. The institutes and hostels vary in size and facilities. There are a few top-class centres and hostels with air-conditioned rooms, chandeliered halls, CCTVs, plush furniture, technological gadgets, etc., resembling five-star hotels. But the majority are far lesser in every respect, including coaching quality out to grab a piece in the bonanza. If coaching fees range between Rs 1.5 and Rs 3.5 lakhs per year, room and flat rents vary from Rs 3500 to Rs 25000 monthly.
The top centres are the Banzal Classes, Allen Career Institute, Motion Education, Resonance Eduventures, Vibrant Academy, Akash (now owned by BYJUS), Unacademy, etc. The Kota boom began with Vivek Kumar Bansal, who launched the city’s oldest coaching school, the Bansal Classes, during the late 1980s. A mechanical engineer with the textile mill JK Synthetics at Kota, a small industrial town, Bansal met a debilitating ailment that forced him to quit his job. Confined to a wheelchair, the enterprising Bansal found a new livelihood- taking tuition for school kids. After one of his students topped in a JEE exam, a stampede was in front of his house by parents to get their children admitted under him. Today, Bansal Classes have more than 15000 students and have branches in many other states. Ditto with the other schools also.
Today, most top centres have students crossing 10,000. The fee structure varies from Rs 1.5 lakhs for one-year courses to Rs 3.5 lakhs for two years. Most students are from states like UP and Bihar, and according to the New York Times, most come from low-income families.
Interestingly, the Kota boom has triggered an internal demand for its own products. Former students are immediately hired after they graduate from IITs or NITs as faculty with fabulous salaries that shame best corporate offers. The pay packages range from Rs 50 lakhs to Rs 2 crores annually! Resonance Institute is reported to have recruited 150 graduates from IIT. Ten to 20 graduates from IIT-Madras and IIT-Guwahati have joined Kota centres. The frantic race for good teachers has led to fierce hiring and poaching competition between schools.
Another article quotes a police officer terrifyingly; “Kota sits on a pile of gunpowder. This city is living at the cost of dead childhood.” The New York Times called Kota’s dark underbelly a reflection of India’s culture of inequality. Rising incomes and aspirations have not been accompanied by a corresponding rise in jobs, leading to a scamper for limited opportunities. India is the world’s youngest nation, with over 600 million under 25. The working-age population rose by 121 million since 2016, but the labour force shrank by 10 million. The unemployment rate among college graduates and PGs is 33%.
The JEE and NEET are the country’s toughest examinations, with a miniscule selection rate of 2%. Though 2.74 million students sat for this year’s tests, 2.64 million failed. Though Kota is its most visible and shocking face, India’s student community, in general, is going through unprecedented pressure caused by the gap between aspirations and reality. According to the National Crime Records Bureau report, 13000 students committed suicide in 2021. Suicides have been growing inside the premier institutions as many cannot cope with the high-pressure system or competition and the pressure from parents, teachers, and peers to perform. There has also been increasing number of suicides by Dalit students, unable to bear caste discrimination. More than 120 students killed themselves during 2014-21 in institutions like the IITs, IIMs, and NITs. Leading the blacklist are IITs (33), followed by NITs (24) and IIMs (04).
I am no admirer of Chetan Bhagat, the best-selling author, especially his politics. But his recent article on the Kota issue was quite sensible. Bhagat reminds us all. “No student deserves to reach a point where they abandon hope. This isn’t about Kota, this is about us. This isn’t about a child failing at an entrance exam and quitting life, it is about us failing as a society and quitting on our responsibility to show our children a better future”.
PS: Even as I file this copy comes the news that the second Dalit student commits suicide in IIT, Delhi within two months. A Dalit student had killed himself here in July.